For the past three seasons, Desmond Trufant has easily been the Falcons’ best defensive player entering the season. Nobody can dispute the star cornerback’s talent. There wasn’t any player on defense that came close to matching his ability or success. Trufant has played at a high level since breaking out in 2014. Opposing quarterbacks started to show more respect in 2015, as the former first pound pick was only targeted 56 times on 979 snaps.
Times have drastically changed under Dan Quinn. It’s practically impossible to designate Trufant as the defense’s most valuable player, unless you’re just attached to him. The Falcons went 7-3 following his season-ending injury against Tampa Bay. That included a six-game winning streak heading into the Super Bowl. Trufant isn’t irreplaceable, but his status as a top-tier cornerback deserves to be acknowledged. No other defensive player on the team is a premier player at their respective position yet. There are several players on the cusp of greatness. They are all currently 26 years old or younger. Here are five players that can reach the highest level.
No defensive player has more superstar potential than Beasley. The 2016 sack king can take over games with his blistering speed off the edge. His ability to force fumbles (six last season) is another element to his accomplishments. It’s even more impressive, when considering how Beasley is primarily used on the left side. Mastering a few pass rushing moves did wonders for the former top ten pick. Beasley used a stutter step or rip move on numerous sacks. According to Jon Ledyard, six of his 15 sacks came from using both moves.
While Beasley’s superstar potential surpasses everyone, he is also the most inconsistent player on this list. There were some disappointing stretches during his breakout season. He was non-existent in the first three and last three games of the season. Beasley needs to add another move within his pass-rushing arsenal. Working with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in the off-season shows his commitment.
It comes down to him being more dependable rather than exploding with spurts of production. Beasley is capable of even surpassing Trufant in two or three years. That will only happen, if opposing offensive coordinators start structuring their game plan around containing him, similar to how they have to accommodate Trufant on a weekly basis
If it wasn’t for Joey Bosa, Jones had a legitimate shot at winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was terrific during Atlanta’s six game winning streak. A combination of having excellent awareness and exceptional speed helped solve a once never-ending flaw. Middle linebacker has been a problematic position for countless seasons. After being initially criticized for reaching in the second round, the Falcons drafted one of the most promising defensive players in the league.
With the new additions and multiple players coming back from season-ending injuries on the defensive line, Jones should have more opportunities to make plays against the run. He showed improvement in that area following some poor performances earlier in the season. Due to being undersized, Jones can get overpowered at the point of attack. Taking on blocks proved to be a difficult task. By gaining more weight, it should help him not get cleared out of running plays.
There is plenty to be excited about in regards to his future. Producing four interceptions and two forced fumbles last season showed his playmaking ability. With more experience and better play against the run, Jones can develop into a stud.
Jarrett is the most intriguing player on this list. Despite being used in different roles, he still played at a relatively high level. The lack of depth at defensive tackle forced Jarrett into playing more snaps than originally expected. Taking on double teams as a one-tech in the base package and rushing the passer, as a three-tech in Quinn’s nickel package didn’t faze him. Jarrett’s sensational performance in the Super Bowl gave everyone an indication of his capabilities.
Trading up for him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft could go down as one of Thomas Dimitroff’s greatest decisions. Not stressing over the “undersized” label allowed him to pull off the biggest steal in the draft. Jarrett is a versatile player that can overwhelm opposing lineman with his explosive first step and relentless motor. The most fascinating aspect of Jarrett’s career is that he hasn’t played in a stabilized role.
Lining up as a nose tackle and taking on multiple blockers isn’t his game, yet he did a commendable job when forced into the role. The addition of Dontari Poe should allow him to exploit more one-on-one opportunities and excel as a disruptive three-tech.
Neal didn’t receive much fanfare heading into his rookie season. Most draft analysts rated him as a second-round talent at best. Between his inconsistency as a tackler and cover safety, there were some genuine concerns about him. Neal quickly erased those doubts into becoming a true enforcer that Quinn desperately needed on his rebuilding defense. He managed to keep his composure as well. Not missing many open field tackles and still delivering brutalizing hits made him an instant fan favorite.
Similar to Jones, Neal is on a fast upward trajectory. The former first rounder surprised skeptics by shadowing tight ends in certain games. Facing players such as Greg Olsen and Travis Kelce provided valuable experience. It didn’t always go smoothly, but Neal showed strong discipline and fluidity in man coverage against top competition. His hard-hitting reputation coming out of Florida proved to be accurate. Forcing five fumbles and breaking up eight passes showed his knack for being around the ball.
Neal should be a cornerstone of the Falcons’ defense for years to come. By creating turnovers and continuing to improve his cover skills, there is nothing stopping him from becoming a premier safety.
Poe gets the nod over Robert Alford. Both players are extremely talented, yet have endured stretches of underwhelming play. Poe’s profile as a two-time Pro Bowler and freakish talent makes him a better candidate. After playing over 750 snaps in the last two seasons, it will be interesting to see Poe in a reduced role. Quinn knows how to effectively use defensive line rotations. That should enhance the prospects of Poe regaining his status as an outstanding nose tackle. Analysts have knocked him for blatantly taking plays off in Kansas City. Would you expect anything different from a 340-pound tackle dealing with such a strenuous workload?
If Poe is going to be a difference maker, it will come from improving the Falcons’ run defense. They were gashed in games against Oakland and Philadelphia. Other teams couldn’t take advantage of their undersized defense, due to facing early double-digit deficits. The offense will regress to some extent. That will mean more close games against teams trying to establish the run. This is why signing Poe was so crucial.
Despite his value against the run, he shouldn’t be considered as a one-dimensional run stuffer. There is no reason why he can’t push the pocket and generate some pressure. Quinn started implementing more stunts and twists after taking over play calling duties against Kansas City. An athletic, space eater like Poe could make those designs even more effective.